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21.06.02 Berard, Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England

The Medieval Review

21.06.02 Berard, Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England


Especially since it can be so textually vibrant and geographically varied, the reception of King Arthur as a cultural icon is of acute interest to many medievalists. Whereas surveys of this legacy might range as far back as the first, early-medieval references to Arthur, and as far forward as contemporary deployment of Arthurian imagery, there is always welcome space for focused studies that assess the scope and depth of Arthurian influence.

Christopher Michael Berard's Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England: From Henry II to Edward I provides a rich and compelling survey of Arthur's reception in one of its most crucial periods--in the wake of Geoffrey of Monmouth's c. 1136-38 launching of Arthurian literature as one of late-medieval Europe's leading cultural subjects. Berard also situates his study in the very heart of this explosion in interest in all things Arthurian. After beginning with the politics and culture of the Angevin Empire of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berard conducts a diachronically organized survey that explores the impact of Arthurian myth and symbolism during the reigns of the English Plantagenet kings Richard I, John, Henry III, and Edward I.

Berard describes the central topic of his study as Arthurianism, which he initially describes as "Arthurian imitation and role-playing" (1). Committed to conveying the "influence of literature on living people" (2), Berard builds a study that allows us to appreciate how often and intensely Arthurian imagery and mythology inflect English politics and culture from the mid-twelfth century to the very early fourteenth century. Berard offers a richly sourced study, using a wide range of materials that feature both well-known and less familiar literary narratives, reflections from commentaries and chronicles, and numerous anecdotes and texts drawn from such discursive realms as heraldry, diplomacy, and biography. With many lengthy block-quotations featuring the original languages, and with an impressively deep bibliography in its copious footnotes, this volume offers a treasure trove of Arthurian materials related to late-medieval England, as well as to various areas enmeshed with Plantagenet politics.

Berard’s first chapter, focused on the reign of Henry II, offers a fascinating study of the way that Arthur became both an instrument of English self-mythologizing and a means of denigrating the Celtic Other within Britain. After describing how Geoffrey of Monmouth produced a King Arthur in line with Anglo-Norman values and desires in his seminal History of the Kings of Britain, Berard isolates the key "complication" to such Anglicization of Arthur as the "claim" that the "Brittonic Celts" were his "cultural descendants" (18). Berard prepares us for his book’s intriguing approach to this familiar conflict by pointedly linking this tension about Arthurian appropriation with "the ‘Breton Hope’" that the "sleeping" Arthur was "destined to rise again and deliver his people in their hour of greatest need" (18, emphasis in original). Berard’s early focus on a specifically Celtic form of "political messianism" (24) in tension with an ideologically motivated Anglo-Norman program of Arthurian appropriation sets up a crucial cultural tension that reappears throughout the history covered by this volume. Berard ensures the depth of his survey through his commitment to showing the "duality" of appropriations of Arthur in the twelfth century, with some appealing to "blood and language" ties by "Brittonic Celts," while others appeal to "royal office and geographical domain" (20).

After discussing the ambiguous cultural origins and range of the "Breton Hope" (26-27), Berard surveys various approaches to Arthur’s end, which range from messianic statements of a dormant savior-Arthur to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s being intriguingly "unwilling" to "take a firm stance" on the politically volatile question of Arthur’s possible survival (37). Describing how Henry II’s "Angevin court" both Anglicized Arthur and denigrated the "Breton Hope," Berard argues that cultural appropriation ideologically portrayed "native Celts" as both "barbarians and bad Christians" (43). After showing how poets such as Wace gave Henry II sorely needed "legitimization" (45) by linking him with Arthur as a "paragon of Angevin chivalric kingship" (44), Berard offers a fascinating argument that Étienne of Rouen in his Draco Normannicus provided Henry II with Arthurian legitimacy, even as he belittled the Breton Hope as "an aberrant belief of degenerate Brittonic Celts" (61).

Perhaps most interesting of all in this rich first chapter, Berard explores the ways various writers exploited "anti-Jewish polemics" in conducting their "negative ethnic profiling" against Brittonic Celts (22). Berard argues that "Christian polemicists" who often engaged in anti-Semitic "stereotyping" readily compared Jews with "barbaric" Brittonic Celts: the "Arthurian messiah" was made to seem analogous with the "Davidic messiah" (22). Turning, later in the chapter, to Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis, Berard locates an ideological comparison between Brittonic Celts and Jews that was designed to besmirch the Breton Hope as a "source of spiritual corruption" (70). Berard’s stimulating discussion of anti-Jewish rhetoric in a programmatic Angevin campaign to debase belief in the Breton Hope is an especially intriguing contribution to this study of early Plantagenet Arthurianism: we see how a campaign of identity politics directed against Celtic cultures deployed the unfortunately all-too well-worn habit of consolidating Christendom’s unity by vilifying Jews.

In a second chapter, focused on Richard I’s reign, Berard links the intense political tensions produced by the birth of Arthur of Brittany as the potential fulfillment of the "Breton Hope" (78) with the alleged discovery in 1191 of Arthur’s skeleton in Glastonbury. While exploring accounts of the Glastonbury finding, Berard observes how Gerald of Wales skillfully incorporated the royal burial story into a deeper history of Arthur’s "struggle against the Saxons" (90). Berard offers a fascinating glimpse into other accounts of Arthur’s final resting place, examining Gervase of Tilbury’s discussion of the Sicilian tradition of King Arthur surviving in a "liminal space between the living and the dead" situated by the "fires of Etna" (100), as well as the fairy-occupied "Avalon" of the Old French Bataille Loquifer (101). Berard also shows a politically subversive alternative version that places Arthur’s final resting place in a Welsh Avalon. In theVera historia de morte Arthuri, the dying Arthur is taken into Gwynedd, which poses a "direct challenge" to Gerald’s placement of Avalon in England’s Glastonbury (103).

Describing the birth of Geoffrey of Brittany’s posthumous son Arthur of Brittany, Berard asserts that the boy could be both "the Plantagenet Hope and the Breton Hope," as long as there was "harmony" between the Angevin Empire’s ruling "dynasty" and the "duchy" of Brittany that it dominated (109). After using the troubadour Peire Vidal to show how the infant Arthur of Brittany could be understood as promising an end to the "Breton Wait" (111), Berard explores the tensions between Richard’s ambitious brother John and those rallying around Arthur. Berard reveals how William of Newburgh works to rob the Breton Hope of legitimacy by mocking it as among many "fables about Arthur" (118). Berard provides a highly interesting study of Richard I’s own exploitation of Arthurian culture, detailing the circumstances of his calculated gift of Arthur’s legendary sword "Caliburn" to Tancred, the King of Sicily (124). Berard’s discussion of Laʒamon’s Brut as a site where Arthur residing in Brittany was aimed at audiences believing in Arthur of Brittany as the "Breton Hope" (129) offers a powerful example of Arthurianism’s deep footprint in English literary history.

Berard’s chapter on King John’s reign is particularly interesting, as we witness a king haunted both by Arthur of Brittany and the Arthurianism that the doomed youth embodied. After showing how John’s killing of Arthur was invoked in his tense relations with the high nobles rebelling in his realm, Berard turns to Guillaume le Breton’sPhilippide to convey how John was imagined as a "King Herod" contrasted with the Arthur of the "Breton Hope" (150). After examining the turbulent politics of John’s fractured England, Berard explores the Arthurianism of the Castilian court, which arose after Leonor, the daughter of Henry II, became a "transmitter of Arthurian literature to Iberia" (154) after her marriage to Alfonso VIII of Castile.

After discussing the understanding of King Arthur as an imperial ruler who, however powerful, nevertheless respected his nobles and relied on their advice in making decisions, Berard turns to Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec et Enide to show why late-medieval nobles agitating against King John would so valorize an Arthur committed to "customary law" and the maintenance of the "status quo" (160). Berard contextualizes the tensions between royal and baronial interests by exploring Arthurianism within the anthology of "English customary law" in the "London Collection." Communicating how closely the Arthur presented in the London Collection corresponds with the baronial ideology of the Magna Carta through a shared commitment to "government per commune consilium regni" (169), Berard demonstrates that King Arthur in the London Collection stands as a basic source and "ultimate guarantor" of English law (168). In an especially fascinating discussion of the ideological implications of privileging questions of law over those of ethnicity, Berard argues that the London collection minimizes the "ethnic divide" between the "British" and the "Saxons" in a history in which members of this realm so often "intermarried" in a process of multi-ethnic "fusion" that they became a single community (170). This argument that "full racial integration had been achieved in the British Isles" served to override any "debate" over Arthur’s ethnic origins (171), instead framing discussion of Arthur’s legacy within a single realm in which English kings could be Arthur’s direct inheritors.

Berard’s chapter on Henry III’s long reign studies the significant growth of Arthurianism within Britain’s noble classes. After showing how early hopes that Henry III might be an Arthur-like warrior-king were soon dashed by a monarch who "did not rise to the occasion" (182), Berard discusses the "round table" game (184) as a significant phenomenon during Henry III’s reign, as numerous nobles staged sumptuous tournaments matching the splendor within Arthurian literary works. After discussing Richard of Cornwall as an enthusiastic Arthurianist whose purchase and restoration of Tintagel Castle may have been meant to distinguish him from his brother Henry III (who preferred the spiritualist Edward the Confessor to the belligerent Arthur), Berard argues that references to a "King Henry of England" (197) as the patron of numerous major works of thirteenth-century French Arthurian literature (such as parts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle and the Prose Tristan) most likely refer back to the glory days of Henry II (though the ambiguity of which Henry was referred to allowed Henry III to share in such Plantagenet prestige).

Berard offers a gripping study of how leading nobles of the House of Gwynnedd cultivated "Arthurian credentials" (206) during Henry III’s era. Berard uses the "Song of the Welsh" to explore how Llywelyn ap Grufudd deployed Arthurianism in uniting the Welsh against the English. After showing how the Scots are ignored in a poem that imagines a "purely Brittonic alliance" in which the only enemies are the English understood as "Saxons" (210), Berard argues that "the Song of the Welsh" is best situated during the Second Barons’ War of 1264-67. Intriguingly, such Welsh use of Arthur avoids making him a singular figure: Arthur is merely one of "four worthy ancient British heroes" whom the "Britons"--whose rich history includes heroes of the "Welsh, the Bretons, and the Cornish"--were urged to "imitate" (211).

Berard’s fifth chapter covers the reign of the conqueror Edward I, who used Arthurianism more "systematically" than any Plantagenet before him (216). Urging us not to see "romance" and "history" as truly distinct in Edward’s Arthurianism (217), Berard offers a compelling study of how Arthurian imagery was woven into Edward’s regime. After arguing that Edward I likely came into contact with Arthurian propaganda during his early battles with Llywelyn ap Grufudd, Berard turns to the Meliadus associated with Rustichello of Pisa to suggest that Edward I’s time during the Eighth Crusade (1270-74) was a period rife with Arthurianism. Berard examines Edward I’s later "translation" of Arthur’s alleged "remains," placing them in the immediate context of Anglo-Welsh hostilities: by using ritual to highlight Arthur’s burial in Avalon, Edward argued against any placement of the legendary king’s final resting place "in Gwynedd" (233).

Berard asserts that Edward I deployed "round table" (240) tournaments to build solidarity with the knights who would form his war machine. According to Berard, Edward used such tournaments to produce a "pro-monarchical recalibration of Arthurianism" (241), in which he made himself a "new Arthur" around whom "England’s nobility" could rally (242). Exploring heraldry as a particular interest in this chivalry-oriented society, Berard turns to Girart d’Amiens’s Escanor to show vividly how symbolic connections between nobility and literary knights generated a "flattery" (244) that consolidated the warrior class in Edward’s England. While discussing Edward’s chilling conquest and subjugation of Wales, Berard turns to Edward’s mockery of "Welsh interpretations of Merlin prophecies" (264) to demonstrate that Edward was acutely aware of the stakes of messianism: Edward’s Arthurianism also included stamping out potentially subversive deployments of Arthurian myth. After discussing Edward’s well-known appeals to Arthurian precedent during his efforts to claim Scotland, Berard offers an absorbing reading of the "Arthurian ambience" (296) of the Feast of the Swans in which the future Edward II and some three hundred men were knighted at Westminster.

Berard’s study of Arthurianism offers a compelling survey of the manifold uses of Arthurian mythology and symbolism during the reigns of five Plantagenet kings. In this richly sourced volume, Berard consistently shows how deployments of Arthurianism were dynamically related both to informing political contexts and to a lively interest in this living cultural legacy. Scholars will surely benefit immensely from this book’s careful collection of many topics and texts that speak to the immense impact of Arthurian discourse in late-medieval England.